The Facts of the Cases

Yesterday I talked about Lemmon vs. New York as the next Dred Scott case. Today I want to drill down and look at the facts in each to show just how similar they are.

Born a slave in Southampton county, Virginia, Dred Scott went with his owners to Alabama where they failed at farming and came eventually to St. Louis. There they sold him to army surgeon John Emerson. Scott accompanied Emerson to his postings in the free state of Illinois and then to modern Minnesota, free soil under the Missouri Compromise. There he married another slave and she gave birth to his daughter. The same Missouri Compromise made that daughter free at birth.

After two years, the army transferred Emerson to St. Louis and then Louisiana. The Scotts followed. Emerson married Irene Sanford and returned to Missouri with the Scotts in 1842. Emerson died the next year, making the Scotts Sanford’s property. She instructed Scott to hire out to another army officer. We don’t know exactly why Dred Scott only now sought his freedom. He might not have known his rights based on his stays in free Minnesota (then Wisconsin Territory) or Illinois. He might have feared retaliation against himself and his family. Whatever his reasons, Scott tried to buy his family from Sanford. She refused. With the help of abolitionist friends, Scott sued.

The Missouri courts had often given freedom to slaves in similar situations. Scott lost his first suit on a technicality but won it on retrial, the court finding that Emerson illegally held Scott on free soil. I am not a lawyer, but my understanding of Scott’s case is this:

  • State and federal law excluded slavery from territory where the Scotts once lived. They thus became free when taken there.
  • Missouri free the Scotts from a combination of the supremacy of federal law in the Northwest Ordinance, repeated in the Wisconsin Enabling Act, and the Missouri Compromise in addition to its Constitutional obligations to acknowledge Illinois’ freeing of the Scotts via the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

The Missouri supreme court took up the case and  overturned twenty-eight years of precedent in finding that Missouri law prevailed and the Scotts remained slaves. The opinion of the court referenced the the proslavery climate of 1852 making such freedom suits unwelcome and informed Scott he ought to have sued in a free state.

Under Missouri law, control of Emerson’s estate passed to Irene’s brother, John Sanford. The latter Sanford lived in New York, which gave Scott a federal case. With some new lawyers he sued again. In 1854, the circuit court upheld the Missouri supreme court’s verdict. Scott appealed to the Supreme Court, delighting proslavery opinion thanks to that court’s southern majority. Roger Taney’s court ruled as described yesterday, overturning a law as unconstitutional for only the second time in the court’s history.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

In 1852, the same year Dred Scott’s suit before the Missouri supreme court failed, Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon of Virginia sailed from Norfolk to New York, aiming to catch a steamer to Texas. They brought with them eight slaves (ages 2-23), and put them in a boarding house while they waited for their ship. The slaves came in contact with a free black, who petitioned the New York courts on their behalf under New York’s antislavery laws, which gave freedom to every slave brought into the state for any reason. Like the Scotts, the Lemmon’s slaves came to a free state and sued under its laws for their freedom. Unlike the Scotts, they were still in that state.

Jonathan Lemmon appealed to the New York Supreme Court, then its Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state). Both courts ruled against him. Seeing the potential of the case, Virginia determined to pursue the matter with Roger Taney’s Supreme Court. Having already put slavery beyond the power of territorial or federal law, only state law remained and the Lemmon case directly challenged it.


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